COVID-19 sparked one of the swiftest ever business revolutions, as people stopped going into offices and started working from home. How much they get to stay there is a question most organisations are still grappling with. In the second of our series on post-COVID-19 operations, following our analysis of the ‘more resiliency, less cost’ supply chain sweet spot, we look at the implications for people in a world where the issue of how, when and where we work has become far more complicated.
Working from home, or a hybrid of that and office working, is here to stay. With productivity up, at least on ‘transactional’ tasks, and, in some cases, office costs down, most senior managers are happy. And with work-life balance evened up, so are many employees. One energy and utilities client told us the pandemic had ‘proved the business case for remote working technology within five weeks, when it would [otherwise] have taken five years’, not least through being able to recruit a more cognitively and geographically diverse workforce.
But organisations must beware storing up issues, whether it’s creeping loss of creativity from less spontaneous team interaction, or flagging motivation caused by dwindling personal contact with colleagues. How can you avoid these dangers and keep your people engaged and your culture cohesive?
Talking to our clients has underlined that organisations can’t afford to take the ‘new normal’ at face value. As one life sciences client pointed out, ‘If you have a six or seven-year product development cycle, it’s hard to spot failures right now in creativity or innovation.’ Based on client conversations across sectors, here’s what working for them:
No one way of life suits everyone. That didn’t matter when the office was the default and home the exception. But that expectation is gone. Mandating where people work, and when, can breed discontent. Organisations have to take careful note of what works and doesn’t work for everyone, catering for both the never-going-back homeworker and those clamouring to get back.
Operations managers mustn’t project their own workstyle preference on to everyone, or fall for unconscious ‘proximity bias’, where the person they can see is the one they favour. Also, if people have to be on-site, can you give them flexibility in some other way, like where they work or the pattern of their hours, so they feel they have some autonomy? The more people can be liberated to create their own ways of working, the more committed they’ll be to embracing them.
While it’s tempting to take productivity spikes alone as a win, organisations shouldn’t forget that quality matters as much as quantity. So, take a fresh look at how well individual inputs and team objectives match the performance outcomes you want. And, wherever people work, ensure that presenteeism, where people judge themselves on hours worked, doesn’t set in. It’s also crucial to ensure people have the support they need, wherever they work. And this must extend beyond the façade of caring. One client said: ‘Mental wellbeing is now an integral part of the company, not an add-on.’ An energy and utilities client added: ‘We did regular surveys in the pandemic on where people needed help, what’s working and what’s not.’ This sort of measure should be part of post-pandemic life too.
It’s likely the vast majority of workers will spend at least some time at home, and that means using collaboration technology. While most know the basics of taking part in virtual meetings, some are less advanced than others. This can make them more reticent in meetings, and perhaps leave them frustrated that they can’t ‘read the room’ as they would in face-to-face situations. This will need training, either in the technical basics or the subtleties of running and taking part in virtual meetings, to make sure no one is left behind.
In a hybrid environment, those not in the room could struggle to assert themselves. One way round this is for the meeting chair to be online, so that everyone in the room has to pay attention to the virtual team members. Another is to appoint a facilitator to make sure everyone stays engaged and feels they’ve been heard.
The social buzz of being around colleagues was never a secret. But while watercooler moments and lunchtime chatter might not have seemed significant when they happened every day, their value has become clearer as they’ve become rarer. Those apparently unproductive moments were part of the glue holding teams and businesses together. ‘Our teams are families, with some people working together for over 30 years,’ as one client put it. A public services client underlined the value of this togetherness: ‘It really worked for us where we had a committed group of people with a single purpose. It was the social system, which we have undervalued in the past.’
So when people are all in the office, make sure they spend time together, not alone in corners hunched over laptops. It could be brainstorming ideas, solving problems or just celebrating each other’s successes. An energy and utilities client told us one route to virtual cohesion: ‘If you have a better-integrated, more collaborative way of working, you have a better chance of succeeding…We came up with a programme charter to hold each other to account on culture.’
With people dispersed, they need more reminders of the organisation’s purpose and successes. This will combat alienation and demotivation. Managers must be ready to pepper their conversations with these stories to influence mindsets and change behaviours, rather than just checking progress on projects.
Many of these issues apply to teams, as well as individuals. The next in our series looks at the challenges of developing and keeping teams functioning well in the post-pandemic environment.